Game Name:  Starlancer
Developer:  Digital Anvil
Publisher:  Microsoft
PC Release Year:  2000
Review Date:  July 3, 2013

Combat aviation has always fascinated me.  Maybe because it is just crazy to think that guys willingly strap themselves into a flying metal box with a machine gun out front so that they can shoot, and be shot by, other such craft.  Perhaps it is instead due to my dad having spent his early adulthood in the Navy where he worked around carrier aircraft, and his own interest rubbed off on me.  Either way, I cannot count the number of Lego dogfights that took place through the kitchen when I was younger.  Surprisingly, my enthusiasm for these gladiatorial clashes never found its way into the gaming sphere.  Early console flight games failed to impress and by the time I got my first PC, I was too late for the classic Wing Commander and X-Wing series.  When I did get my chance, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator wound up leaving a horrible taste in my mouth; the countless crashes during take-off and landing convinced me that flight simulators were more tedium than fun.  Despite my bias against the genre, I gave Starlancer a try and I am extremely happy that I did.  The fighter combat turned out to be equal parts Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, proving to me just what enjoyment this type of game can deliver when pushed towards the arcade side of the spectrum.

The premise of Starlancer is awesome, both for its originality and its plausibility.  Approximately 150 years from now, humans have broken free of their terrestrial trappings and have established colonies on a number of planets and moons throughout the solar system.  Despite this new frontier, nationalistic animosities remain and the major powers have divided themselves up along Cold War lines.  The United States, Western European countries, and Japan make up the Alliance, while Russia, China, and the Middle Eastern states make up the Coalition.  Similar to Pearl Harbor, the start of the game sees the Coalition launch a surprise attack to obtain new colonial possessions.  As one of a few citizens with flight experience, you join a volunteer Alliance fighter squadron to stem the losses and eventually take the fight to the enemy in a campaign that plays out much like an outer space version of World War 2’s Pacific Theater.

Despite its age, Starlancer screams production value.  When you are not flying missions, you can cruise around the capital ship you are stationed aboard in a series of pre-rendered cut scenes.  This allows the news broadcasts you watch and the mission briefings you attend to capture a higher sense of realism than what could otherwise have been obtained at the time.  In space, the graphics switch over to 3D models which are more than passable by modern standards and give off a used future look that fits well with the subject matter.  Being a pilot in a volunteer outfit, the first fighters made available to you look as clunky and run-down as you would expect them to be, and there is enough grease and grime to go around.  On the sound front, the radio chatter can get repetitive at times but it really solidifies the whole experience together with the type of urgent back-and-forth that you would expect in the middle of combat.

Level design is poorly executed and a little over-the-top, but is otherwise very good.  It ultimately leeches great ideas from even greater science fiction.  Want to do a suicide run on a super weapon that can blow up capital ships in one blast?  You got it.  Want to raid an enemy base in an asteroid belt to gain access to desperately needed fuel and supplies?  Sure thing.  Want to help your mother ship go toe-to-toe with an enemy carrier as they lob broadsides at one another?  Absolutely.  There is an epic sense of scale in each of the missions that never causes the pacing of the game to lag.  The downside to this is once you reach the halfway marker, you start getting the impression that everything you do is critical to the war effort, which is kind of unrealistic.  The missions themselves are usually made of three parts and generally take about 20 minutes to go through from start to finish.  While a primary objective is given to you in the briefing before your flight, your purpose changes as the mission unfolds around you.  While this gives the first playthrough an urgent air of excitement, these scripted events detract from the overall experience when you die.  Starlancer’s greatest weakness is how difficult it can be, considering there is no way to save your progress in the middle of a flight.  If you get careless or unlucky towards the end of a level, you could ultimately have wasted a fair bit of your time as you are forced to play through the majority of the mission again so you are better positioned to handle the evolving objectives.

The gameplay of Starlancer is rock solid though, and with a decent joystick, your spacecraft can pull all manner of turns, loops, and spins as you would expect it to be capable of.  Your weapons are also incredibly responsive and provide a certain oomph on impact.  This is because there are very few laser weapons compared to most space games, and your arsenal is made up primarily of machine guns, cannons, and missiles.   Watching your tracer rounds trail behind a bogey until you can jockey into a position where your shells connect is immensely satisfying and is one of the best parts of the game.  The ships themselves are supposed to be different on paper and each one has a series of attributes like firepower, top speed, and acceleration while also having one unique characteristic like spectral shields or the ability to cloak.  In reality though, the difference in stats do not amount to much, so you will choose your ride based solely on that special ability.  Players will quickly learn that the most powerful of these is blind fire, which allows you to aim your ship approximately at the enemy and the guns will track the rest of the way to target on their own.  Because of this, there is really no reason to try other ships except in the couple of levels where cloaking is more or less required.

As good as Starlancer is overall, I almost chose not to recommend it based solely on the insane increase in difficulty that rears its head on the final level.  The ultimate goal is to assault and destroy an enemy space station, but this entails fending off multiple waves of fighters while simultaneously attacking the base’s turret defenses, escorting demolition ships to their targets on the station, hunting down a notorious enemy ace, and defending a particularly important downed pilot from enemies out to get him.  After three hours of continuous attempts, I was finally able to walk away with a mission success and a game completed, but that was not before being punished into wishing I had done my playthrough on an easier difficulty level.  However, I never got to the point of wishing I had skipped this game altogether.  Ignoring the last level, my quibbles with the remainder of the game are very small compared to the unfiltered joy I got out of the title.  I recognize fully that I have not played the Wing Commander or X-Wing series, which might otherwise alter my opinion of Starlancer.  Despite this, I cannot imagine a world where I did not think every true gamer should boot this game up and buckle in for a wild ride.

Verdict:  Recommended